There have been many disturbing allegations that interrogators at Guantanamo and other prisons under U.S. supervision have desecrated the Muslim holy book. That anyone would have grounds to believe such allegations fills me with shame.
But how can any reasonable person not entertain the possibility that officials permitted to hurt and humiliate human beings might also maltreat a sacred text? The Bush administration, from top to bottom, has created a climate of credibility for these allegations.
Koran abuse would be reprehensible under any circumstances. Yet previous allegations have prompted little more than muttering and mild protest. Some ten days ago all hell broke loose.
Since then at least 15 people have been killed. Property has been destroyed. Newsweek, the double-crossed messenger, has been unfairly vilified all over the world, most reprehensibly by the Bush administration and its op-ed allies. I, for one, think Newsweek had no reason to retract or apologize, and I will elaborate on this in another article.
Meanwhile, what explains the escalation in violence?
The short answer is that Imran Khan, a Pakistani cricket-legend turned politician, needed a prop for a press conference on May 5. Knowing full well (any Pakistani would) the likely outcome of his charges, he incited the violence for his own political purposes, which is to say, to strengthen his vote bank.
The calculus works like this: Imran Khan wishes to bring down Pervez Musharraf, an ally of the United States. To the extent that Imran can stir up anger against the U.S., he can discredit Mussharaf, too. And if he can rile the crowd over insults to the Koran, it’s pure gold as an opportunity for tarring secularist Mussharaf.
So, thanks to a good amount of extra flame-fanning by Talibanesque imams and mullahs, riots broke out in Pakistan–and, predictably, in neighboring Afghanistan, too. Religiously conservative Pathans, who formed the backbone of the Taliban movement, straddle the border. They would have heard the same radio reports broadcast in Pakistan.
To understand the incendiary effect of Imran’s provocation, we need to take a look at Pakistani politics.
If General Musharraf allowed a normal, unrigged election today, Pakistan’s Islamist parties wouldn’t win enough seats in Parliament to form a government. (Not so long ago, the rabidly religious parties couldn’t have won win enough seats to force a secular party into a formal coalition, though that might happen now, thanks to Musharraf’s machinations.) Lacking voter appeal, the religious parties had to depend on street power, the threat and the ability to call out rampaging mobs of unemployed young men ready to do all the ugly things that mobs of bitter, angry, idle young men anywhere do.
Back in the nineteen-seventies Pakistan suffered through another military regime backed by the U.S. Unlike Musharrf, Zia-ul-Haq never deceived himself into thinking he could run a martial law government without pandering to the religious parties, if only because he himself was deeply sympathetic to fundamentalist Islam. In the name of promoting Shariah Law, some very controversial legislation was put on the books back then, the two most important being the Hudood Laws affecting women and the Blasphemy Law. Conviction under either can lead to a death sentence. Like the post-Zia secular governments of Nawaz Shariff and Benazir Bhutto, Musharraf made feeble gestures to remove this legislation, but ended up by backing down. Fear of the street was too strong.
The Blasphemy Law is relevant here. Simply put, anyone guilty of desecrating a Koran can be put to death. Stringently administered by honest prosecutors and courageous courts demanding unimpeachable witnesses and reliable evidence for conviction, the law might be all right.
In practice, however, the Blasphemy Law is used to pull off land grabs and destroy political opponents. Imagine a Christian who owns a tidy bit of fertile land. An envious neighbor simply accuses him of burning a page of the Koran and uses a putative witness to whip up emotions. An angry crowd collects. The infuriated mob kills the accused in a fit of religious fury that is more likely to be praised than condemned. If the accused is lucky enough to survive mob action alive, he will be apprehended, thrown into a filthy jail and railroaded by ambitious local politicians able to control the decisions of low level courts.
So far, some very brave appellate and Supreme Court judges have rescued the victims of such false accusations from death via a terrible miscarriage of justice, but going home and resuming a normal life is not an option for a prudent survivor. He has, in effect, been driven off his land.
It appears that no Americans were killed during the Khan-inspired rampaging in Pakistan or elsewhere. But guns are everywhere in Pakistan, and factions of all kinds routinely use drive by shoot-‘em-ups to achieve political ends. It is certain that Americans are less safe on Pakistani streets today than they were two weeks ago.
Had the Bush administration displayed more respect for Muslim prisoners from day one in the war against terror, at home and abroad, Musharraf and other responsible Muslim leaders might have been able to quiet the angry mobs. As it is, it is they not Imran who would have sounded unbelievable, and so Muslim leaders who might like to be allied with the U.S. are forced instead to make common cause with inflamed anti-American mobs.